Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ride That Hammer

(Written March 15, 2009) 

Lately I have been considering the purchase of another bike, or frame on which to build one, to take the place of and use the parts from the 52cm Surly Cross Check which is too small for me. I don’t exactly need another bike—I have several already—but I don’t have a light touring/randonneuring bike such as the Surly was built to be. I have a racing bike, a commuting bike, and a utility bike, each very good examples of their kind, and none really suited to a long ride in the country, which is the kind of riding I like to do. The kind of bike I have in mind would be light, fast, have low gears for grades, have racks for bags, and a dynamo lighting set. The racing bike is fast and sporty, but lacks low gears and is not really suited to racks, fenders and a lighting set. The commuting bike has the low gears, fenders, rack and lighting set, but is heavy and slow. The utility bike lacks low gears and is heavy and only fast on the level or downhill. The Surly Cross Check frame combines strength, adaptability, space for racks and fenders, and the ability to have a wide gear range, at a reasonable cost. The Surly Long Haul Trucker frame is more suited to touring, but a bit less adaptable otherwise.

What I am trying to rationalize is whether to go with the moderate-cost Surly, or with a more expensive, higher-quality lugged frame, old or new. What I would really like is another frame like the one I had in the 1970s, which had all the qualities I want. Such a frame will cost about three times the price of a new Surly frame. If I find a used Surly frame, I may come out close to even on the frame, because the 52cm I have can be sold for the same price I pay for its replacement. A Surly frame will be serviceable and will use all the same parts I have already got. Perhaps its main drawback is that my existing handlebar bag racks won’t fit properly on modern threadless stems. There are ways to work around that.

If cost were no object… those sweet words… I would simply buy the lugged frame of my choice and build the bike I want to build. But cost is an object. That amount of money is enough to be a concern, especially for a bike I really don’t “need”.

I also see that it is easy to “fight the last war,” i.e., to get the bike that suits a set of requirements from the past, but not the future. Do I really need this kind of a bike? What kind of riding will I be doing? And that brings up the question of what I think I will be doing with my life for the next few years.

I bought my racing bike, used, because I got a good deal and I wanted a nice bike again. I built the commuter from another used bike for the specific task of riding to a specific workplace in 2007. I bought the utility bike because I liked it and had wanted one for a while. I bought the Surly because I thought I was getting a good deal, but I had no specific use for it in mind when I got it—I worked that out later. Indeed I had been in the process of turning my racer into a light tourer, and stopped when I got the Surly.

The riding I anticipate doing this spring is recreational riding, and some utility riding—shopping and other errands. The recreational riding I would like to do is to go out for a whole day and cover some miles. This I might do locally, or when visiting family in New England, or maybe I would take my bike somewhere within an hour or two in search of more interesting rides.

The thought which gave rise to the title of this essay is the question of whether it defeats my intention to have “too nice a bike”. There are plenty of bike enthusiasts out there who treat the bikes like a kind of jewelry with wheels on. The bikes are lovely, but how much would you ride something that rare, expensive and beautiful? It reminds me of the antique car owners who never drive their cars because they are too nice to risk in traffic. A bike that can’t be replaced becomes a liability. And I thought to myself that people who ride bikes professionally, bike racers, probably don’t get sentimental about them. They may have bikes they prefer, but to them the bike is a tool, like a hammer, to be used until it wears out and then replaced. In fact, being sentimentally attached to your bike might be a liability for a racer, since they have to push themselves and their bikes to the limit. If you are concerned about what happens to your bike, you might not push hard enough to win.

And indeed, a tourer has other considerations from a racer. The racer needs to complete the race, but the pros can blow out a bike and start the next race with a new one. Obviously this is not the same for the lower-level racer who has to buy his own bike and probably maintain it too.

But I ask myself—if I intend to ride, indeed maybe even to ride in distant places, am I better off to have a bike I can easily replace if it is stolen or damaged?

Then again—I have only one life and a finite number of years (no one knows how many) in which to ride. Do I want to spend it riding inferior bikes because I think that’s all I deserve?

I would dearly love to justify spending the money on a high-end lugged frame. And that’s basically the reason for all this rationalization. I know where I can get what I want, I know what it costs, and I know I want it… and that my finances are not really ready for it. 

Back in the Saddle Again

It is utterly astounding to me that I have not posted here since March 12. The title I chose today is apt not only in the sense of picking up and starting again, but indeed in some of the events that happened between then and now. 
On March 22, I went to Bike Demo Day at Mt. Airy Cycles. I'd never been to that location before, but I've been to their older shop, College Park Bicycles, many times. I first met the owner, Larry Black, back when he and my brother worked together at Georgetown Cycle Sport, a long-gone shop that seems to have at one time or another employed nearly every present-day DC-area shop owner or manager who was around back when it existed. I was interested to see the Mt. Airy shop, ride in some countryside and maybe try out some different bikes. I also had my eye on an old touring frame in Larry's collection, which I thought might be from the same maker as the one I once owned. It would be expensive, but very tempting if it were the same. So I loaded up my two road bikes--the 1986 Grand Prix and Surly Cross Check--into my Volvo 240 wagon and headed out there. 
The demo day was mainly to demo recumbents and tandems, though not limited to those. I had Larry look at my Surly and give me his opinion on whether it fit me. His first remark was actually to compliment the Grand Prix, then to tell me that bike fit is entirely a matter of personal opinion. But I appreciated having him look at the bike and how it fit me. His conclusion was that it did, but that I had the saddle too high. After lowering it, I took a ride on the road and it seemed better. I still think it's small and I intend replacing the 52cm frame with a 54cm soon. What I do want to commend Larry for was that he spent some of his time on a very busy day to work with me, and made no effort to sell me another bike. As it happened, the old frame I was there to see wasn't exactly like my old one and so I saved my money. 
Late in the afternoon, I began to take notice of some of the recumbent bikes. I've always been intrigued by recumbents, but I've never owned one and had only tried to ride one once, about ten years ago. It was nearing the end of the day when they were putting bikes away, but I did get in a couple of circuits of the parking lot on a couple of different recumbent bikes. Then I started looking at the recumbent tadpole trikes. These have really interested me since I first saw one a few years ago, not least for their resemblance to a Morgan Three Wheeler. I sat on the nearest one that still had its pedals on, and set off around the parking area. My initial impression was that this was the most fun I'd ever had pedaling anything. Strange but true. Now, a month later, it seems unbelievable and I tend to dismiss it. But from then on, I felt that I had a different view of cycling from anything before. I said to myself that at some point I'd like to have one of these. And I wished I had started soon enough to take it on a proper road test. 
Whenever I am considering a purchase, I do a lot of research. What I rode was a Catrike Speed, and so when I got home I began by looking at the company's web site. Then I looked for other information sources. web sites, reviews and so on. Rather quickly I found a page titled "how to buy a recumbent trike," which seemed to be something I was looking for. It was a very good analysis of the factors to be considered, written by an experienced trike owner who happens to have chosen a Trice QNT, built by Inspired Cycle Engineering in the UK. I looked at every manufacturer site I could find, several dealer sites and a number of other sites. Sheldon Brown had owned a Greenspeed about which he wrote "this thing is an absolute blast!" Soon my short list was down to about four makes, with Trice at the top of the list. Having since had a closer look at several makes, Trice is now the one that I want. 
I have no real justification for this, other than how much fun it was to ride one particular trike one time. Unlike many people who ride recumbent trikes, I am fully capable of riding a standard bicycle, of which I already own several. And these things aren't cheap—more than three grand including accessories. So this isn't a purchase I am likely to make soon, if ever. I can certainly see plenty of reasons not to get one.
Meanwhile, I am indeed back in the familiar Brooks saddles again on my standard bikes, and spring is finally here. Perhaps there is a trike in my future, perhaps not. To my existing habit of evaluating roads I drive on as bike routes, I have now added doing so for trikes, even when bicycling. Whether I ever have a recumbent tadpole trike, it’s been an interesting exploration into a whole new area of cycling.